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Foreign policy

It’s time to re-engage with Afghanistan

Harvesting leeks near Jalalabad. Shafiullah Kakar\Getty

Last week, says Tobias Ellwood in The Daily Telegraph, I visited Afghanistan and found it “totally transformed”. Just two years after Western forces scuttled from Kabul, life is bustling in the streets and the Taliban are no more visible than the Met police in London. Regions once rife with violence are now dotted with solar panels; fields of cotton, wheat and fruit are fed by new irrigation systems. “This, to put it mildly, was not what I was expecting.” After a dozen visits to the country on behalf of the Ministry of Defence, urging Nato and the UN to do exactly what the Taliban have now achieved, I am forced to grapple with the “harsh reality of the West’s strategic missteps”. But the real challenge is ahead of us: the decision whether or not to “re-engage with the victors” of this protracted conflict.

“I am no Taliban-appeaser.” My own brother, after all, was killed by Islamist extremists in 2002. But I recognise the need for a more pragmatic strategy. Afghanistan remains fragile. Some 70% of its population requires humanitarian aid; nine in 10 households face food shortages; half of the country’s nine million children under 11, male and female, have no access to schooling. If the West continues to shun the country, it risks pushing the nation to a “fiscal cliff” and potentially starting another cycle of instability, terrorism and mass migration. First, we need to open up our embassy, then we need to “get real”. Afghanistan’s future could be another war or life as a Chinese vassal. If we want to avoid both these outcomes, we must “rethink and re-engage” – “however queasy we feel about it”.